The conversations I’m having these days about TV writing are different from the conversations I was having before the pandemic. People outside the industry are asking me how will things move ahead. People inside the industry are asking specifically about what it’s like working on TV shows that are writing or in production right now.
To both groups, the answer starts the same way: television keeps moving. Several productions are already shooting – just read the trades to find out details about the network shows, streaming shows and movies that are in progress. There are a number of adjustments being made: from separating different crew members from other crew members, to regular COVID and temperature checks, to scenes shot with actors farther apart than ever (and, in the case of the soaps, strategic use of mannequins for love scenes). In the writers’ room, it’s business as usual. Except for the unusual elements: everything is on video chat, so there are no commute times, and there are fewer support staff – since there are fewer items to handle logistically.
Being in my first Zoom room, I’m learning the differences between this mode of working and the traditional writers’ room space. There are some interesting new things to know and be aware of for your current (or future) virtual room experience.
Whiteboards are digital: We’re using a program in our room called Miro – and, though it basically works the way boards usually work, there are few added complications. First, it’s an additional thing for our writers’ assistant to manage. If she’s putting up the beats / scenes of a certain story, she’s not able to take notes at the same time. So, we have one of our writers also helping – managing the board, so the assistant can write the notes – keeping track of alt. pitches and dialogue that the showrunner likes. In some rooms, they have an additional person to help manage this. (This might be a job for a writer’s production assistant – who in the “regular” world would be ordering lunch and stocking the office with supplies.) An additional complication is that all the writers have access to Miro at any time, so if you go in there (as I did today to take a screenshot of the board) you have to be careful not to mess anything up. I caused some weird technical glitch today and I had to get help un-doing it.
Hours are (likely) shorter: Virtual rooms are (somehow) more exhausting than real life rooms. Perhaps because each moment in the virtual room seems more like “work” time – while real live rooms have some built in downtime – with side conversations or tangents. In our room, we’re certainly friendly, but the self-consciousness of the platform means an extra level of concentration and focus. So, pace yourself. I’ve been grateful to discover that we can get more done in less room time. We take frequent breaks, too. But that also means it can be useful to do a bit more prep before the room and some kind of debrief after. I’ve always taken and reviewed my own notes in the room. Now I’ve added more research to my process, because I’m likely to supplement our brief stints with other kinds of preparation so that I can hit the ground running.
Listening is a MUST: Yes, it was always key. But in a virtual room, you’re likely to step on a colleague if you just start talking. The process here takes a bit more feeling out – to get used to the rhythm of your fellow writers chiming in and making suggestions. We tend, in our room, to say, “Sorry, you go ahead,” more often than I’ve seen in traditional rooms.
Notes calls from the network and studio may also be on video chat: This can be odd, as most writers are used to getting notes on material without seeing the faces of the executives and other collaborators. Be ready for the adjustment. That means being aware of your expression as you hear the comments on a script or an outline and really getting to know who’s who in notes calls. The upside here, is that it’s easier to concentrate on the comments when you’re looking into the face of the people making the comments.
You’d better clean your room: Getting to look into the homes (or mobile homes) of your colleagues is an interesting experience. And, of course, that means everyone is looking into your home as well. One hazard of being on certain video chat programs is that you can distract yourself by zeroing in on any one colleague to examine his or her space: (Is that a Ninja Turtle action figure???). In that way the Zoom experience demands more concentration than normal. As for your space – it takes some extra effort for me to tidy up (don’t tell Marie Kondo) and that means giving my room an extra once over before I log on each day. I’ve also taken to doing some added decorating to keep up appearances. (My normal home-disorder becomes a drawback when my home is on display.)
You may not want to look at yourself: The system we use for our virtual room has a setting where you can turn off seeing yourself. Depending on my level of narcissism (and the day) I will opt to turn off “self-view” so I can pay better attention to my fellow writers and the story we’re trying to tell. That may change if I happen to be wearing a really nice shirt. Actually, it has helped, on occasion, to see myself, because it keeps me on my toes and engaged. Your mileage may vary.
All the usual stuff applies, too: The regular writers’ room skills of offering suggestions to the room, using the language of possibility (“There’s a version where…”) and playing well with others still applies in a virtual room. There’s no need to monopolize the conversation or imagine you’re the smartest person in the space. Being silent so other people can talk, complimenting good ideas and bringing good energy to the room are still must-dos.
Bottom line, TV writing is, arguably, the best job in the world – even in a world that is mostly virtual. With a few adjustments and some new / enhanced awareness, you’re bound to hold your own whether it’s your first time in a room or your 21st. This week, as you find yourself in a video chat situation (whether you’re writing for TV or not) see how many of these tips can help you stay present and open to the proceedings at hand. And, as ever, let me know how it goes.